There are some undeniably great tunes in this show, which is a compendium of songs written by the incredible Fats Waller, a man who could play jazz piano like no other. But since there is no book to tie the tunes together, it falls to the director and cast to keep the energy and momentum at a peak level.
This production at Porthouse Theater is only successful part of the time, and the strain to keep it all working starts to become evident along the way.
It seems that the two gentlemen who conceived the show, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, probably sat down one morning, wrote out a list of Fats Waller songs, declared the show completed and then broke early for lunch. Oh sure, there are a few lines of dialog to set up certain pieces, but there is no through line of information about the composer. And that is a damn shame, since Mr. Waller was quite an interesting presence in the jazz era during the first half of the 20th century.
Another wrinkle is that, although there are 30 songs in the production, only a few of them rise to the level of greatness. It’s hard to miss with the title song and other ditties such as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and the classic novelty piece “You Feet’s Too Big.” But many of the other numbers just kind of lay there.
This problem can be ameliorated to some degree by performers who invest the material with unique energy. And that does happen at times. Jim Weaver is a sly and sinuous presence in most of his songs, and he particularly glows in “T’Ain’t Nobody’s biz-ness If I Do” and in the slow and sensual “The Viper’s Drag.” And Tina Stump uses her excellent pipes and undeniable stage presence to make “Squeeze Me” and other tunes leap off the stage.
The other three performers—Chantrell “Channy” Lewis, Aveena Sawyer and Eugene Sumlin—each have moments that work fine. But they are ultimately done in by the sparsely written show and never develop characters that fully resonate.
Director Eric van Baars keeps his actors in constant motion, and that becomes a problem all its own since there are so many exits and entrances the stage at times appears to be a concourse in a train station.
Of course, dazzling costumes might help but the costumes in this show disappoint. The men wear slick period suits but costume designer Susan J. Williams puts the women in the same style dress, in three different colors. And they don’t even change frocks after intermission, just add a bit of sparkle to the Act One duds. Emphasis on dud. In a similar way, the scenic design by Patrick Ulrich features a large scalloped art deco fan assemblage that captures the era but never evolves into anything more interesting.
One undeniable star onstage is the music director and pianist Edward Ridley, Jr., who pounds out the tunes with unstinting enthusiasm and skill. It’s actually too bad he and his two band-mates aren’t given their own featured slot, other than the short entr’acte.
This show has become a reliable chestnut for many theaters, but it still needs fresh energy and risk-taking to make it come alive. The Porthouse production sparks to life at times, particularly in the wonderful “Black and Blue” number that reveals the hurt behind the jazz and jive. But in general, Ain’t Misbehavin’ ain’t misbehavin’ enough.
Through July 22 at Porthouse Theatre, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 3143 O'Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884, https://www.kent.edu/porthouse